Open Source Motivations

David Hobson recently contacted me as he is doing research info business/financial models and motivation for Open Source projects. He sent me some questions that I answered; we thought that the answers might be interesting to the general community as well. David indicated it will be a little while before he finishes his research and encouraged me to go ahead and post the replies I’d sent him. I will, of course, post a link to his work when it is available.

Here are his questions and my replies.

What has been the motivation to churn out GPL plugins as well as support them? Branding is a benefit, both publicity and example of quality. However, I’m sure that doesn’t compare to the cost they require and you have plenty of branding and publicity already.

That is a complicated question, and one whose answer has changed over time.

When I first started contributing to the b2 community, it was a simple matter of publishing code I had written for my own blog/site. There was very little additional effort involved, the community was relatively small and technical, and I had the time to do it.

WordPress was created as a fork of b2 and it included some of the features I’d written for b2. Over time I ported the rest of them to WordPress, and began writing WordPress features as well.

When I created and ran the first design competition for WordPress it was because I believed that people’s vision of what could be done was too small. I saw the ability to do more and wanted to encourage people to push the limits on design. The results were excellent, hundreds of great designs were created and made available to the community.

WordPress evolved to support official plugins and themes and the community enjoyed explosive growth. I continued to create functionality that I thought was useful for WordPress and release it as plugins. This required more effort than it used to, because the WordPress community was becoming more mainstream and to be generally useful the plugins needed to be more polished, more forgiving of user error and required creating much more documentation.

Around this same time I was making the transition from an independent developer to a consulting and development shop that focused largely on WordPress development. I was hiring my first employees, getting a business off the ground, doing things like finding office space, worrying about making payroll, selling, etc. – my free time largely went away, and my ability to put out free plugins and themes went with it.

Now we have a team of about 15 people and my obligations to my team are greater than ever. I’ve also been blessed with a wonderful 18 month old daughter. She is a priority for me, the time spent with her and my family largely replaces time I previously used to contribute code back to the WordPress community.

Do you see indirect financial benefits in any other way, shape, or form?

I used to get about $100-200/month in the way of donations through my website. Unfortunately due to changes in the way plugins are presented on that has dried up to about $5/month.

I made it a priority to update all of our publicly released plugins this summer and hired an intern at Crowd Favorite to make this happen1. WordPress best practices evolve with each release, and plugins written properly just a few short years ago are badly outdated as a result. We’ve invested a significant about of money in this effort, and I honestly don’t expect to receive anything back from it.

Do the thanks and appreciation go anywhere near compensating the constant e-mail asking for support? What inspires your desire to give without return?

I actually feel strongly that the current situation is unsustainable. Unless the WordPress community at large starts to better recognize and reward the developers that create the tools that they use and rely on, the developers won’t/can’t continue to provide as they have.

In talking with other plugin developers, it seems fairly universal that the reward for a successful plugin is a deluge of support email that includes the worst kind of sense of entitlement, rudeness and ignorance. The community as a whole seems to expect to be able to pay nothing, yet received expert and individual help and support for free.

One of my goals with WordPress HelpCenter was to try to affect change in this area. My belief was that we could work with plugin developers to have them send support requests to WPHC, have WPHC provide commercial support services, and give a revenue stream back to the plugin developers. While WPHC has been successful overall, it has utterly failed in this effort. What we found was that regardless of the actual issue, users experiencing trouble with a plugin blame the plugin. They assume it’s a coding problem (even though it isn’t in most cases), expect free support and are so rude that we’ve lost people from our team as a result; ultimately having to refocus our efforts away from this type of support. One of my WPHC devs told me that he was amazed I kept my plugins freely available, that he would have killed them off long ago if he had experienced the type of feedback he was seeing now that I was forwarding my support requests to WPHC. I think this was a reasonable response, and that makes me sad.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is (my idea certainly didn’t get legs), but I know that I am very rarely willing to make the extra effort (and make no mistake, the process of packaging, documenting, writing extra code to make something as forgiving as possible to different environments and user error is typically more work than writing the code in the first place) to publicly release free plugins anymore.

I still see the WordPress community as a group that has wonderful potential and many bright spots. It’s for this reason that I am happy we are able to work within it. I really enjoy helping to push WordPress to become something more than it was before – for example via our Carrington Core platform and Carrington Build. We are also working on a new WordPress product that should really help WordPress adoption in environments where more sophisticated staging and deployment requirements are enforced.

I hope that the WordPress community and ecosystem is able to find a way to better support the contributions of individual developers as it continues to evolve. There are lots of smart people with good ideas trying to do the right thing, I’m optimistic that solutions can be found. I’ll certainly continue to support that effort however I can.

  1. Most of the work is done, we’re in the proces of final code review and polish. [back]